Home > The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(12)

The Core (Demon Cycle #5)(12)
Author: Peter V. Brett

“Ent gonna do that anymore.” Gared’s words sounded more a plea than an order. “Promised Leesha and swore by the sun.”

“Easy to make an oath like that,” Elona said. “Lot harder to keep it—believe me. Easy now, with that Angierian skink draining your seedpods night and day. Always like that at first. Think you’ll never need another woman. But she’ll tire of the chore, and untie your breeches less and less. Then one day, when your pods are fit to burst, you’ll come looking for me, knowin’ I’ll take you leaves-to-root and use tricks that young debutante of yours never heard of.”

Gared gasped. Was she touching him?

“What do you think, boy?” Elona asked. “She empty you like I can?”

“W-we ent…” Gared stuttered, “done that yet.”

“Must be backed up to your eyeballs!” Elona laughed, and it sounded triumphant. “What say I do your young promised a favor and skim some off the top for old times’ sake?”

There was a sound of stumbling and shifting furniture.

Elona laughed. “Want me under the table, ay? Let me take care of you in secret while folk buzz about?”

More shifting furniture. “Ent happenin’ again, Mrs. Paper,” Gared growled. “Deliverer said I could be a better man, and I aim to.”

“You’re bein’ an idiot, boy,” Elona snapped. “You can do better than that girl.”

“Ya don’t even know her!” Gared said.

“Had enough tea with that simpering girl and her idiot mum to drown a water demon,” Elona said. “She’s got nothing to offer now that my daughter’s single again.”

Night, Mother! Leesha thought. Still?!

But Gared surprised her. “Don’t want Leesha. Shined on her, I know, but that wern’t ever gonna work.”

Honest word, Leesha agreed.

“It’s not just Leesha, you idiot,” Elona snapped. “You marry her, you could be Duke of the Hollow. Night, one day you might be king of Thesa!”

Her voice turned back to a purr. “Now that she’s had a few spears, she’s ready for a real tree. And when she’s not climbing it, I’ll keep the fruit plucked.”

“W-what about Erny?” Gared squeaked.

“Pfagh,” Elona said. “He’ll hide in the closet and pull at himself until you’re gone, like always.”

Leesha had enough, slipping off the warded earpiece and opening the door. Gared was using the council table like a shield, frozen as a deer on the far side.

“Creator be praised.” Gared hurried over. Leesha wanted to laugh at the sight of Gared Cutter, seven feet of pure muscle, cowering behind her.

“Fine, keep it in your pants!” Elona growled. “That don’t change what it’s left behind!”

“Ay, what’s that supposed to mean?” Gared asked over Leesha’s shoulder.

“It means I’ve got your babe in my belly, woodbrain,” Elona snapped.

“What?!” Gared demanded. “Just thought you put on a few pounds.”

It was the worst thing he could have said. Elona’s aura went red, her eyes bulging.

But then the council room door opened and Rosal stepped in.

“Night!” Elona threw up her hands. “Does everyone in this ripping keep have an ear to the door?”

Rosal smiled. “I was just looking for Gared.” She threw him a wink. “He’s got paperwork to do.”

Gared looked pale as Rosal looked back to Elona. “It’s not as if this is news to me. Gared has tells whenever your name is mentioned.”

“I do?” Gared asked.

Rosal’s eyes flicked over, holding his. “You’re not in trouble for anything past, so be smart and keep quiet now. I’ll handle this.”

Gared blew out a breath. “Ay, dear.”

Elona put her hands on her hips, fixed on Rosal now. “Smarter’n I gave you credit for, girl.”

Rosal gave a mocking curtsy. “I know you’re something special here in the Hollow, Lady Paper, but I went to school with dozens like you. I don’t mind that you broke Gared in, but on our wedding night I’m going to do things that will make him forget all about your bumpkin wife’s tricks.”

Elona’s hand darted out, reaching for Rosal’s long, thick hair, but Rosal was ready for it, slapping the hand aside and stepping out of reach. She had a dancer’s balance, and Leesha knew she could strike back if she wished.

But Rosal kept control. Her voice was quiet, smile still in place. “He’s not yours anymore.”

“Core he ent,” Elona said. “Got his brat in me.”

“You’ve got a child in you,” Rosal agreed. “But is it Gared’s? Who can say? You’re a married woman.”

“And when the babe don’t look like Erny?” Elona asked.

Rosal shrugged. “I doubt any will be surprised. You have quite the reputation. ‘What’s Lady Paper done now?’ is a drinking game among the servants, did you know?”

Elona’s aura darkened again, but she stood frozen.

“But…what if it really is mine?” Gared squeaked. All eyes turned to him.

“Told the Deliverer I’d be a better man,” Gared said, his voice slowly gaining strength. “Ent lookin’ for scandal, but I ent any kind of man, I can’t stand by my babe.”

Rosal went over to him. He flinched as she reached for him, but she only laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Of course not, my love. I would never ask that of you. But there are many ways to stand by the child, if we learn it’s yours.”

“Ay?” Gared asked.

“By the time the babe comes, we’ll be married,” Rosal said. “And our marriage contract will put our issue first in your succession. After that, you’re free to claim the child if you wish.”

She put a hand on his face. “But you may find it easier for all to simply visit often and shower the child with gifts.”

Elona crossed her arms. “And if I start the scandal, myself?”

“You won’t,” Rosal said. “Not without proof, and likely not even then. You’re not as smart as you think you are, Lady Paper, but you’re smarter than that. You have more to lose than Gared.”

Leesha spoke up at last. “I can call Amanvah if you wish, Mother. With a drop of your blood and a throw of her dice, she can give you proof. We can settle this all here and now.”

“You, too, girl?” Elona spat on the rug, turning on a heel to storm from the room.

Gared let out a groan, and Rosal patted his arm. “Breathe, love. You did well. We haven’t heard the last of this, but the worst is over. You just keep your distance and leave Elona to me.”

She turned to him, catching his eyes and holding them with her own. “And come our wedding day, you’ll never want her to climb your tree again.”

“Don’t want it now,” Gared said.

Rosal caught his beard, pulling his face down for a peck on the cheek. “Smart boy.”

Gared put his hand over hers. “Thought ya’d never understand, ya knew what I done.”

Rosal smiled. “Past is past, we agreed. Yours and mine.”

She looked to Leesha. “Thank you, mistress.”

“Ay, Leesh,” Gared said. “Came in like the Deliverer just then.”

“Hardly,” Leesha said.

“Demonshit,” Gared said. “Ent the first time. Yu’ve always been there when folk need ya most, Leesh. You an’ Rojer an’ Arlen Bales. Came to the Hollow together when we were beaten, and turned it around. Ent no one whose life ent changed by ya.”

“Now Arlen is gone,” Leesha said. “And Rojer. People are going to realize I’m no Deliverer when they see the foolish choices I’ve made.”

“Ent gonna see any such thing.” Gared waved an arm dismissively. “Broken folk come to the Hollow, lookin’ for the Deliverer, but the first thing they see is Leesha Paper, takin’ care of ’em.”

Leesha shook her head. “You’re the first thing they see, Gar.”

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